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Quadruped Running Drills Part III: (More) Corrections

If you have not read Part I and Part II, please do so now.

Last week we focused on corrections for the neck and shoulders in the performance of quadruped running drills.  These drills are used by runners and non-runners alike, but have been appearing with greater frequency in the running world as many coaches have begun to appreciate the importance of glute (butt muscle) activation.  However, because most coaches and athletes don’t appreciate how these drills directly complement gait, they allow too much slop to persist in exercise form. 

This week we’ll address the corrections to five common flaws that we did not cover in Part II: swayback, hand instability, lateral movement, leg externally rotated, and grounded foot plantar flexed.  The purpose of this series is not to provide a catalog of exercises (there are many exercises that can work), but instead to outline a thought process of progression and regression to address common technical flaws in the execution of these popular exercises.     

1.  Swayback can be a mobility or stability issue. 

Ideally we’d conduct appropriate movement screening to determine where the deficit lies, but unfortunately many teams lack either the resources or expertise to do this properly.  (That’s really not a good excuse, but it is a reality for many)  Further, bodies change over the course of a season and larger teams can’t screen with the same frequency as coaches in a one-on-one or small group situation.  As such, being able to troubleshoot issues on the fly is a valuable skill to have.   

a)  Breathing – The first thing to check for is whether the athlete can actually get into the right position.  Before putting them in quadruped though, we actually want to look at the diaphragm and breathing in a primitive posture.  Many athletes live faulty breathing patters.  When we put them in quadruped and ask them to do a donkey kick or other leg extension move, the brain sometimes knows no other way than to sway the back.    

A lot of people are resistant to training the breath in this fashion (thinking that it stands in the way of “real” training), but it really should not take more than a few minutes to re-program the system.  The athlete still must work to retain good habits going forward, but breath corrections in this posture should happen quickly.  A descended diaphragm and centered ribcage achieved via proper breathing patterns set the stage for proper exercise execution.  Visit Dr. John Mullen’s post at Swimming Science for a progression of breathing drills that flow nicely into quadruped exercises

b)   Hip extension – Two quick ways to check for hip extension.  Easiest way is the Thomas test, which many are familiar with. 

If you see a swayback, this is a “Go-to” move to help sort things out.  The Thomas test is great too because it is not only a test, it is also a useful exercise, particularly when supplemented via PNF stretching strategies and breath control. 

Also look at the active straight leg raise, and be discriminatory about performance.  Does the back arch/pelvis tilt?  Does the knee bend?  Leg rotate externally near end-range?  Any of these compensations are strategies that many manifest themselves as a swayback during performance of quadruped drills.  In that case, best to take a step backward and work on appropriate regressions for each of these exercises.

2.  Leg Externally Rotated

Leg external rotation can be addressed via a similar thought process to the swayback.  The compensation scheme is similar, but not identical: if the hip doesn’t extend properly, movement has to come from someplace.  Some athletes create movement in the lower back; others do so by rotating (rather than extending) the leg.    

Cueing:  Although I generally avoid an overuse of cueing (too much cueing can lead to dependence and sensory overload), this is one area where cueing can be useful.  The simple cue of keeping the toe pointed downward sometimes cures excessive external rotation.  You still need to be vigilant when moving to a standing position, but this is one correction where cognition is a powerful corrective tool; unlike some other corrections where cueing just muddles things even further.

Soft tissue: Soft tissue restrictions in the psoas, TFL, IT band, and glute medius often play a role in driving movement.  We can’t always isolate whether the movement drives the restriction or whether the restriction drives the movement.  These points apply to all of the hip related corrections, but fit nicely into the leg externally rotated discussion, as well as the swayback discussion.  If a restriction exists in any of these places, the body must find a way around it, regardless whether the restriction is the underlying cause or a downstream effect.  Take care of these before allowing athletes to crank out 100s of crappy reps!

Dead bug: The dead bug is one regression perfectly suited for this flaw.   It is basically a hip extension in supine position.  Runners who have trouble with performing the movement in the less stable position of quadruped (or while running) can practice the appropriate mechanics more effectively in the dead bug exercises before moving onto higher level movements.  Practice success…not slop!

3 and 4.  Hand instability and Lateral movement

These are different flaws but both relate to similar causes.  When humans were actually quadrupeds, the hands provided support like the feet and also were used for orienting the body in its environment.  We still use the hands to gather information about the world around us, but not as part of gait.  Just because we now use bipedal gait, doesn’t mean the hands should be ignored, especially when the hands are a means to support ourselves in quadruped exercise positions.   Hand function is often an expression of shoulder function.  Regardless of what theory of body interconnectedness you believe in, there’s no doubt that shoulder function affects the hips, so on these grounds alone we have plenty of justification for looking closely at hand and arm function during quadruped drills. 

We can actually break hand instability down into more detailed flaws, such as the hand losing contact with the ground, “monkey” thumb, and hand too flat on the ground.  For now, we’ll just go with the general idea of hand instability as something to watch for as it is usually quite obvious who lacks stability in that area.  No one is entirely sure of the mechanisms which cause deviant hand positions, but in general they can relate to tension elsewhere in the body

A while back, Alberto Salazar made waves in the running world in talking about “flaws” in the thumb carriage of prized pupil Dathan Ritzenheim.  What most runners don’t realize is that therapists (particularly in the child development field) look at hand position as part of a routine examination for any signs of dysfunctional neurology.  Fixes can range from learning how to grip a pen to crawling on the ground in quadruped positions.  To fix hand stability in runners, quadruped drills are not a time for the coach to simply “smoke yo a#$” to justify their own relevance, but instead are opportunities for learning optimal fundamentals as with kids just learning to move properly.  No runner should tolerate sloppiness in any of these exercises, even though the hands aren’t thought of with the same importance as the legs and feet.    

Lateral movement can result from mobility or stability restrictions in the upper and/or lower body.  Quite a range of possibilities!   The corrections aren’t too much different from any of the other flaws, but if generalized mobility and stability corrections fail, you can still make progress by coaching a narrower range of motion before the athlete is allowed more pronounced excursions.    

5.  Grounded foot plantar flexed

This is how it SHOULD be done.

There are several reasons why it is helpful to dorsiflex the feet in quadruped position: big toe mobility, ankle mobility, hip mobility, and overall stability.  As I noted in the first installment, there is nothing inherently wrong with NOT setting up with way for quadruped position, but it is a blown opportunity to not do so.   Think about quadruped position as a preparation for movement.  That is, we’re not just hanging out in that spot…we’re primed to crawl or run someplace, much like a sprinter at the start of a race.  If you want an effective push-off from the back foot, which engages the posterior chain, you’ll naturally have the toes pointing downward. 

Most runners should be able to get into this position without undue difficulty, but limitations in the big toe, ankles, and hips may restrict a proper set up.  Breathing exercises to set diaphragm and ribcage positioning may also transition into training for these outlying extremities.   For a great resource on big toe mobility, consult this post by Keats Snideman, which offers several soft-tissue strategies and exercises to remedy a stiff big toe.  Bottom line is that the big toe requires adequate mobility for efficient gait; sitting into the big toe during quadruped drills is a quick way to address the big toe without even thinking about it.  Ankles are an entire realm unto itself, but know it’s a place you should look if the recommended quadruped position is difficult.  

Summary

Quadruped exercises can be valuable assets for supplementary conditioning programs in runners when done properly.  The problem is that many coaches and athletes just go out do the exercises without regard for proper form.  Not everyone will get the form right immediately.  Having a system of progression and regression is vital to get the most out of these exercises.  Coaches and runners are warming to the idea of dynamic warmups rather than old-school static stretching, which is great.  However, we can do much better than simply warm the muscles up with a bunch of random gyrations…these exercises should be an opportunity to ingrain sound movement habits and to troubleshoot flaws that are more difficult to fix during normal running.  Have high standards for exercise technique and honor your progressions to give runners the best chance of training and competing free of injury.     

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